Religious Discrimination in Universities: A Personal Story.
Atheism versus religiosity in academia: No tolerance for the intolerant.
Posted Apr 03, 2010
A few years ago, I held discussions with several universities who were interested in hiring me. Some of the schools in question were religiously founded, and as such had extraordinarily blatant forms of discrimination built into their institutional ethos. One school advised me that I could never be granted tenure at their university because I was not a Seven-Day Adventist. Another university advised me that my being hired rested on having to pass in front of a "God Squad" that would seek to establish whether I had been active in a church within their particular Christian denomination. The chair of the department explained to me that they would "coach" me about what I needed to say to ensure that all went well with the God Squad, to which I replied that I found it ironic that a religious school would effectively condone lies as a means of getting me to pass through the final interview. I also explained to him that it would be a while before an atheist Lebanese Jew who was an evolutionary behavioral scientist would accept Jesus in his heart!
At first, I thought that these practices were illegal. I was wrong. It was explained to me that if a university is religiously based, it could discriminate as long as it does not accept any government funding. It struck me as hallucinatory that such a reality could exist in a supposed enlightened liberal democracy. Society goes through extraordinary lengths to provide special dispensation to people of faith, yet they are each perfectly allowed to discriminate against others in the name of religion!
This brings me to my final point: It seems obvious to me that secular universities should not have any onus placed on them to provide special dispensation to one's religious beliefs. Unlike the intolerance leveled by religious schools, I am not suggesting that one should discriminate against individuals because of their religion. However, you should not be provided with any special favors because of your religion. At my university, there is apparently no explicit code that guides religious dispensations. Rather, it was explained to me that it is expected that all professors do all that is within their power to acquiesce to a student's religious demands. Let alone the fact that this makes a mockery of what it means to be at a secular university, how does this jibe with my rights as an atheist? What about all of the atheist students who cannot extract any special favors because of their lack of belief? The "I fasted on Tuesday and hence cannot take the exam on Thursday because I was too weak to study during my religious fast" cannot be used by the atheist student. Is this not discriminatory?
Bottom line: In a free and secular society, every individual should be allowed to practice his religion to the fullest in private life. Individuals should not be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. However, not a single dispensation should be provided to anyone because of his/her religion. No need to question what constitutes a "reasonable" religious dispensation if the rule is that your religious views do not entitle you to any favors. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and endless other temples of worship can be used to practice your religion. However, once you enter public space, none better exemplified than by the university setting, it is essential that only secular laws apply. As many countries are now finding out, providing religious dispensation is a slippery slope that is antithetical to liberal democracies (and certainly to academic life).